I am told that caste-based reservation in educational institutions is unfair to the upper-caste Hindu
This is not a confession.
This is not composed to absolve me of the guilt stemming from having become more aware of my own privilege (and I say this to make a small gesture from within this report against confessions that are entirely self serving in that they do not seek to identify and challenge the systemic inequalities that guaranteed them their privilege, just that they be rid of the blame of having benefited from it). I seek to report certain aspects of my school life, as they were revealed to me in hindsight, and to put it in terms in which I understand them.
School was casteist. And Islamophobic. And I know that possibly none of the people who went to the same school as I did and enjoyed the same privileges of the social hierarchies of that place, would agree. The more well intentioned among them will tell me — “oh it was elitist and sexist (and just so you know, this was an all girls’ convent with an almost all-women staff) for sure and discriminated along class hierarchies, but come on! Casteist? Islamophobic?” This is the oldest argument given against systemic discrimination— the old “I can’t see it so it couldn’t be there!” They get quite uncomfortable when I remind them of the big brown board at the end of the assembly hall that had the names of all the Head Girls painted on it, and of the fact that the statistics offered by the surnames there paints a picture that they wouldn’t want to look at. It gets even worse when I prod them to recall some of the junior school council members they remember from their time (these were elected from among the students of class 5 ) and the fact that it was quite diverse in terms of the students’ communal backgrounds. By the time the senior school council was to be formed in class 12, the surnames would become almost uniform, showing hardly any representative heterogeneity. It would almost seem like there was something within the rules of the school that worked against, or perhaps did not amply work for some students.
The school I studied in did not have rules and regulations and traditions that overtly discriminated against certain castes or the muslim community. What it did however, was hold up practices that implicitly catered to those who fitted into its hyper-exclusionary parameters of what it was to be a ‘good student’. Think of some of the co-curricular activities organised at the inter-school and intra-school events— events that offered impressionable teenagers a massive boost in confidence, and guaranteed popularity in the school among peers and teachers. These events all constantly reinforced one thing into their psyche— that they were worthy and deserved everything the world had to offer, that they would always be eagerly listened to and treated with respect. And these events, I only realise in retrospect, reeked of discrimination. What were they celebrating? Hard work? Wits? Thorough thinking? Oh no, they tested whether you as a 7th grader and a participant in a school drama, came from a household where Don Quixote would be casually familiar to you because your older sibling mentioned something about some film that had something to do about him, that you would recognise that popular Beatles song in a singing competition because your grandfather played their records at home, and whether you would be able to identify that photograph in the “foods of the world” segment of a quiz as a fondue. To most of the students whose ‘merit’ shone in these events, who ended up getting lauded for having the “best school spirit” and given all sorts of positions of responsibility and leadership, this cultural capital came as a given.
We had a whole thing about shoes being polished and socks always staying right up till our knees. I remember being often praised for having impeccably polished shoes. Such a small thing to be praised for, to be made to feel good about myself for, to be made to feel superior for. And it was my father, a lawyer, who everyday without fail, would sit in the morning with his court shoes and my school shoes and polish both to perfection with his probably expensive shoe polish. So curiously well deserved was the praise and the encouragement that I unfailingly received. For about ten years, I was the only child in a family of four, in a house with designated spaces for me to study and read and do art projects and fantasise undisturbed. My studies and all school-related activities took precedence over everything. No one would switch on the television a week before my exams. I was raised to prioritise my work over everything, being told that I must aspire to succeed and to do so for myself alone and not because my parents would eventually need me to show up for them. To grow up without the weight of familial and household responsibility, to be encouraged to dream for oneself, and to be given the space to do so, are privileges. Which schools, in their ‘secular’ and ‘unbiased’ approach, ‘overlook’.
To call it an innocent oversight rids the school of its culpability in all of this. If they choose to not be accountable to how their priorities and parameters affect their students, they not only orient themselves against students of certain demographics, but also invalidate the realities of these students’ lives. When the state actively works against certain identities, schools being overtly insensitive to and implicitly culpable in reproducing this discrimination, makes it a generationally magnifying inequality.